The Falls Church, Virginia school board unanimously approved renaming Thomas Jefferson Elementary School and George Mason High School at its meeting on Tuesday evening, declaring that “schools must be places where all students, staff, and community members feel safe, supported, and inspired.”
Board members didn’t explain why attending class at schools named after two of the most important Founding Fathers would make students feel unsafe, uninspired, or unsupported, but the fact that both Jefferson and Mason were slave owners appears to have been the impetus for renaming the schools.
This is, to put it bluntly, idiotic. I have no idea if renaming the schools will make students and staff feel safer or more inspired, but I do know that attending school in a district that’s afraid or ashamed of Thomas Jefferson and George Mason is going to make people dumber.
Yes, both Jefferson and Mason owned slaves, but they were also men who were outspoken about the evils of slavery, and their efforts in both the state of Virginia and the new United States to secure the ideals of individual liberty helped to end the practice decades after their deaths.
Mason helped to write the Virginia Declaration of Rights in 1776, which was an inspiration and a guide for the federal Bill of Rights that came fifteen years later, while Jefferson’s declaration that “all men are created equal,” while not binding in law, became the foundational premise for the individual liberties of all American citizens, even if that statement remained more aspirational than a reality in the decades after the War of Independence.
Those facts apparently matter less to the school board than the simple and unavoidable fact that both men owned slaves, even as they spoke out against the evils of human bondage. Martin Luther King could approvingly quote Thomas Jefferson in his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” but kids in Falls Church will only see Jefferson as a fatally flawed figure unworthy of recognition and honor.
But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” … And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal …” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be.
Jefferson and Mason not only helped to inspire the cause of freedom for all, but their support for the right to keep and bear arms helped ensure that black Americans would be able to acquire and use firearms of their own in defense of their individual liberty and civil rights. To consign them to the dustbin of history is to ignore vital parts of our story in the centuries-long struggle for a more perfect union.
Why should the school district stop with Jefferson and Mason? Why not rename the district’s Jessie Thackery Preschool? Thackery, after all, was born and raised in Jim Crow Virginia, and helped to create the independent city of Falls Church in 1948. City leaders not only drew the boundaries of the city limits to exclude as many black residents as possible, but they refused to allow black students to attend school in the district, even if they lived there. Instead, they were bussed to nearby Fairfax County to attend segregated schools.
It wasn’t until 1961 that the Falls Church school district decided to integrate; a full five years after the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown vs. Board of Education. To be fair, the district was just the second in the state to allow black and white students to attend class together, but they still dragged their feet for years before complying. If owning slaves in the 18th century is disqualifying for a school name, why should the school district honor any figure that had anything to do with the segregation of students in the 20th century?
If you go looking through our history hoping to find perfection in human form, you’ll undoubtably end up disappointed in every figure you run across. I’d like to think that most adults know this, but I’m gravely concerned that the students in Falls Church, Virginia won’t ever learn that critically important lesson.